Thursday, October 22, 2009

Beatnik Bunin


We have many accounts of the October Revolution, but most are written from the point of view of the Bolsheviks or their former fellow travelers, the Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, or Anarchists. However, opponents of the revolution wrote too, and none is more powerful than Ivan Bunin’s Cursed Days: A Diary in Revolution.

Nobel Prize winner Bunin was the darling of counter-revolutionary circles abroad. His prose was celebrated throughout the large Russian Diaspora, headquartered in Paris, with important offshoots surviving in Prague, Berlin, and New York. Bunin’s reputation and stature were deservedly high, but his nostalgic stories were particularly valued by a people cut off from their cultural roots, linguistic community, and homeland. (See Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory for a rich theoretical analysis of the ties between landscape and memory).

Bunin was also celebrated for his uncompromising stance toward Red Russia. While some exiled authors and artists attempted to find middle ground with the Soviet Union when the Revolution demonstrated its resilience, Bunin resisted all forms of compromise. His Memoirs and Portraits, for example, is filled with trenchant but vitriolic attacks against people who did compromise with the Bolshevik government. His essay about Alexei Tolstoy (not the famous Tolstoy who Bunin worshipped) entitled, “The Third Tolstoy,” is a bitter attack against the morality and talent of a man who decided to return to the Soviet Union to enjoy all of the privileges that could come from state sponsorship. Bunin condemns the poet Block in the same piece, for supporting a murderous regime and taking an official post as secretary to Lunacharsky, the bureaucrat who was put in charge of Soviet high culture. Blok’s famous poem, The Twelve, which compared Bolshevik gangsters with Christ, particularly incensed him.

Frozen Bolsheviks

Bunin’s Cursed Days deserves to be read. It depicts a lot of the savagery of Russian Civil War, but it also gives readers a poetic sense of what it was like to participate directly in the chaos of these years. Written in diary form, the author makes no attempt at objectivity, but merely records his own efforts to make sense of the confusion and terror of this period. Outlandish rumors are mixed in with events that actually occurred but seem no less terrible as a result of their veracity. The diary was written first in Moscow and then in Odessa on the Black Sea, a repository of mixed loyalties. Bunin’s record shows the dramatic, circus-like atmosphere of Odessa, where people desperately awaited the next issue of newspapers hoping for some word about a White victory over Red forces, or a Red victory over White Forces. Farther north, Kiev changed hands between White and Red forces—with deadly consequences for the citizenry—dozens of times.

According to the translator, Bunin’s memoir was his only writing that departed from his traditional posture as an aristocratic social realist. In Cursed Days, Bunin appears to write whatever comes to mind, almost foreshadowing Beat writing in terms of the surreal imagery and apparent randomness of observations.

What’s most valuable about Cursed Days is the way Bunin mixes up Red and White descriptions of the Civil War. Although Bunin clearly identifies with anti-Bolshevik forces, he quotes a long series of Communist man-on-the-street quips and newspaper reports to give readers a picture of the bifurcated information that was inundating ordinary Russians and Ukrainians during these years. Notwithstanding Bunin’s modernist literary style in Cursed Days, he remains immersed in the Russian past like any good conservative. Quoting from Dostoevsky, he writes:

“Give to all teachers ample opportunity to destroy the old society and to build a new one, and the result will be such darkness, such chaos, such unheard-of coarseness, blindness, and inhumanity, that the entire structure will collapse under the curses of humankind even more it is completed…”

Significantly, Bunin thought the Revolution and Civil War had made Dostoevsky’s warning seem understated. Yet the “entire structure” of Soviet Communism did not collapse for decades, but lingered on, destroying countless lives in the process.

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